Speech: Stage 1 of Budget Debate (January 23rd)

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I will use the time that I have in this stage 1 debate to reflect on the difficult choices that the cabinet secretary and the Government have faced in preparing the budget.

I am mindful of Professor David Bell’s conclusion in his report on the budget back in September:

“The Cabinet secretary is largely constrained by the settlement from the UK government, which in turn reflects its policy towards the UK’s current fiscal deficit.”

In the face of those constraints, and as I said in the Finance Committee debate on the draft budget before Christmas, I fully support the cabinet secretary’s budget for 2013-14 and the choices that he has made. We do not have the flexibility of normal countries as our budget is handed to us from on high. For example, restoring money to our colleges would mean cuts elsewhere—cuts that others have failed to outline or propose. In many instances, the choice that we have is Sophie’s choice, where money that could be used in so many different areas cannot be allocated to them all.

I was pleased to see the cabinet secretary’s thoughtful and considered written response to the Finance Committee’s report, which was debated in the chamber on 20 December, as the response answered many of the points that were raised in our report. I was particularly heartened by the information that the Government outlined on the economic impact of public sector investment in next generation broadband, with almost 14,000 indirect jobs being created between 2013 and 2028. That might seem a long period of time, but the ambition is welcome.

As a Highlands and Islands representative, I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s recognition of the need to deliver improved connectivity in areas where next generation speeds are not yet possible. A reliable broadband service in the Highlands and Islands is the greatest gift that the budget could deliver to the region, as it would open up opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises that are currently at a disadvantage due to their geographic location. It is no use having superfast broadband in Kilmarnock if Kiltarlity does not even have a dial-up service. The Government’s commitment to all parts of Scotland is to be lauded.

I was also glad to hear, in response to recommendations that were made by the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, more details of the work that the Government is undertaking on public procurement. As Jim and Margaret Cuthbert attested to in their evidence to the committee, Germany’s strategy of breaking down larger contracts into smaller chunks to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for them is eminently sensible. Given the preponderance of SMEs in the Scottish economy, I am keen for the Government to continue to consider the idea as part of its bid to make the most of what we have.

As a member of the Finance Committee, which agreed its report on the budget, I hoped to see the helpful and constructive tone of our evidence-taking sessions extend to the chamber. I think that, in taking evidence from various organisations and other committees, every member of the committee was acutely aware of the difficult decisions that are being faced in these difficult times. I am convinced that the cabinet secretary has produced the best possible deal for Scotland, but I look forward to hearing positive, constructive and costed suggestions from the Opposition parties on how they would propose to improve it.

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